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Kurdish, Turkish groups compete for influence in Washington D.C. as invasion looms

As tensions came to a head in northeastern Syria with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest threat to invade east of the Euphrates, a variety of Syrian-Kurdish and Turkish groups raced to influence Washington’s commitment to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

7 October 2019

As tensions came to a head in northeastern Syria with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest threat to invade east of the Euphrates, a variety of Syrian-Kurdish and Turkish groups raced to influence Washington’s commitment to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Both groups brought their leadership to the United States in late September, with Erdogan making visits to several Turkish groups in New York, and Ilham Ahmed, the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC)––the political wing of SDF––meeting with US officials and giving interviews.

Among other meetings, Ahmed held an event with the Kurdish-American community of the D.C. metro area, which was hosted by the American Rojava Center for Democracy (ARCDEM). ARCDEM is a “grassroots effort” made up of “a small group of Americans including Kurds” which supports the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA), according to its vice-president, Stephen Arthur.

ARCDEM is one of a handful of groups in Washington D.C. that lobby on behalf of the Kurdish-led AA by meeting with congresspeople, hosting educational and community talks and attending think-tank events, according to Arthur. 

In addition to the SDC, which maintains an official representative office in Washington, a few small groups, such as the American Kurdish Information Network and ARCDEM, advocate for the nascent political authority.

“We’re not an organ of the SDC, but we’re obviously sympathetic,” Arthur told Syria Direct. The group held 20 meetings over the last six months, including with members of congress.

However, Arthur expressed feeling “drowned out” by Turkish groups. He emphasized that their “money and influence” dwarfs that of pro-Kurdish groups and allows them to “dominate conversations” in Washington.

Turkey spent $6.6 million on US lobbying efforts in 2018, where the SDC spent about $120,000. Also, several pro-Turkish groups in Washington—such as Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) and Turkish Heritage Organization (THO)—host similar think-tank events to pro-Kurdish groups.

THO hosted the mayor of Gaziantep, Fatima Sahin, on October 5 to discuss the safe-area zone proposal in northern Syria, among other things. The meeting was attended by a “number of U.S. government officials … from Department of State, Department of Defense and Homeland Security,” according to the event summary.

THO is also hosting an event on October 16, “Future of Syria: Syrian Kurds and Realities in the Region.” Two of the three speakers, Kyle Orton and Eva Savelsberg, have labeled the YPG—the backbone of SDF—as an extension of the internationally-designated terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a position consistent with Ankara’s on the group.

The SDC was similarly preoccupied with Turkey’s activities, according to the latest informational materials it filed in the Foreign Agent Registration Act’s office, expressing concern about the threat that Turkey poses to the AA’s existence.

One article it distributed was titled The Ethnic Cleansing in Afrin: Blood on Turkey’s Hands, while the other discussed Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.

The protection of religious minorities, especially Christians, within the Kurdish-led AA was also central to the message the SDC is trying to portray to officials and interest groups in Washington D.C. 

Filings in early August show meetings with the Family Research Council—a Christian lobbying group—to discuss “religious freedom in Northeastern Syria, protecting Syriac Christians,” as well as a meeting with the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Further, despite the comparative lack of funding, Kurdish groups have a relatively high level of access to American officials.

“Syria is such an important topic in US foreign policy right now,” Arthur said. “Sometimes we get a lot more attention than I would think for such a small group…the Kurdish American community does not represent a large voting bloc in America at all, so it’s totally interesting what’s happening.”

During previous visits, Ilham Ahmed met with several senators, including Marco Rubio (R), Tim Kaine (D) and Ron Johnson (R) all of whom sit on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. In January, she had a brief unscheduled meeting with President Donald Trump. 

The AA also enjoys a degree of support from figures in the US foreign policy establishment who advocate for the Kurdish-led authority in Op-eds and events in Washington D.C. 

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who spoke at the “ISIS Forum 2019” in Qamishli, northeastern Syria, in July, has consistently spoken out in favor of the AA. An article he wrote in January against the withdrawal of US troops from Syria entreats Washington to support the YPG in spite of its connection to the PKK.

Still, regardless of past successes, Trump’s announcement that American troops will not protect the AA from the anticipated Turkish offensive in northern Syria was a huge blow to the Kurdish position in Washington D.C. The decision to withdraw American forces is a ringing endorsement of Ankara’s policy.

However, the move does not necessarily mean that Turkey’s stance will remain popular in the District of Columbia, nor that the AA has lost its footing within the US foreign policy establishment. Several US foreign policy figures, including Brett McGurk, the former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, reacted against the decision.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, called Trump’s withdrawal decision “a stain on America’s honor for abandoning the Kurds,” and said he “will introduce a Senate resolution opposing and asking for the reversal of this decision.”

Further, within Congress and the executive branch itself, the possibility of sanctions against Turkey is still being examined following Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system, a move that could produce a larger split in US-Turkey relations. 

In addition, several Democratic presidential candidates for the 2020 election have expressed support for the Kurdish-led AA, leaving the possibility open for a reversal in policy in the next administration.

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